What Your Neighborhood Needs is a Seed Library

Sharon April 15th, 2009

A while back I got an email from a guy named Ken Greene, asking if I knew about his enterprise - the Hudson Valley Seed Library.  I didn’t, actually, and I was just plain thrilled to hear that it existed.  Their farm and seed catalog are dedicated to preserving seeds with historical ties or specific adaptations to our agricultural region.  And I can’t think of a more valuable project.

I was lucky enough to run into Ken Greene and the Library’s founder, Doug (whose last name I was told and can’t remember, and can’t locate on the site - sorry!) at the Schenectady Greenmarket a few weeks ago, and I got to not only introduce myself, but also see their seed selection, including the flat-out stunning seed “art packs” that they sell some of their seeds in, showcasing a local artist’s works.  I took home a packet of Hank’s X-tra Special Baking Bean in a gorgeous package, and now I just have to wait for the soil to warm up enough to plant them.

I have two intentions in this post.  The first is to draw attention to their work, and membership to their seed library.  Their work is incredibly important - for most of us not lucky enough to live near a major seed company, finding really local seed sources is tough - and even if we do live near a seed company, often most of their varieties were grown a long distance away.  The commitment of the HVSL to growing out seeds locally, and choosing ones that are particularly well adapted to our region is deeply important - it isn’t just one resource, in some sense, seeds are the master resource of any regenerative future.  As Vandana Shiva writes in _Earth Democracy_,

“The seed, for example, reproduces itself and multiplies.  Farmers use seed both as grain adn for the next year’s crop.  Seed is free, both in the ecological sense of reproducing itself and in the economic sense of reproducing the farmers’ livelihood.

This seed freedom ia major obstacle for seed corporations.  To create a market for seed the seed has to be transformed materially so that its reproductive ability is blocked.  Its legal status must also be changed so that instead of being the common property of farming communities, it becomes the patented private property of the seed corporations.

The seed is starting to take shape as the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of life.  The seed is not big and powerful, but can become alives as a sign of resistance and creativity in the smallest of huts or gardens and the poorest of families.  In smallness lies power.”

If you have seed orders yet to place, and live in this general region, I would encourage you to order through them.  If you are a small local farmer, perhaps you might raise out a seed crop for this wonderful project.  Even if you don’t garden, consider supporting them and donating their seeds to local community gardens.

But not only do I want to support this wonderful project, but I want to encourage other people to think hard about establishing local seed libraries, seed saving cooperatives and small seed companies.  We are at the beginning of a fundamental shift towards home agriculture - we see it in the garden on the White House Lawn and in the rising sales of local seed companies.  We see it in the sheer number of people who are recognizing that an access to food that depends on jobs in the public economy represents a vulnerability.

Having access to safe, affordable and most of all, adapted breeds of seed that thrive in your climate and location is a first step in gardening.  Seeing those seeds multiply in your own garden from year to year is the first step in gardening as a means of saving money - when you realize that two lettuce seeds tucked into an old yogurt container provide you with a large salad and a thousand more seeds, you begin to see the hope of real economic growth - the capacity to enrich without theft from the future. 

Fundamentally, seed is not an industrial product - it is a living thing.  It is easy to say “oh, I want to grow Black Brandywine” and order seed from a company that got its seed from a farm somewhere.  But the truth is that two strains of Black Brandywine, one grown out in a long, warm growing season in Missouri and another in a cool short one in Minnesota, will have fundamental differences.  Save it long enough, and your strain of tomato or bean will become something genetically distinct from the one you obtained, as the plants genes work to adapt to the conditions it finds.  We have become accustomed to seeing seed as something that can be standardized and produced like a factory product - but it is not - seed is local, seed is specific to its place and time and circumstances.  And thus, there is no way to get the best possible results from an industrialized agriculture that treats all places as though they were the same and all seeds as though they were destined to the same future.

I think there is no doubt that saved seed, whether bought or traded, will be a large part of any hopeful future.  So I would encourage those with the power to do so to invest their time and energy in supporting institutions like this one, and national and local seed saving groups.  And I would encourage you all to learn to save at least one or two varieties of seed, to trade and share them, and perhaps to establish local seed libraries that can hold the seed, the site of so much possibility, resistance and bright hope, in its right place of honor at the center of our communities.


15 Responses to “What Your Neighborhood Needs is a Seed Library”

  1. Green Assassin Brigade says:

    This is exactly what I’m trying to do this year: creating a personal seed bank, growing to increase and acclimatize seed for personal need, but also for gifting and perhaps eventually a small business


    I’m not so organized yet to form a group or network but I hope to make time for that or recruit someone else local to lead the cause.

  2. Beth says:

    Thanks Sharon for highlighting Ken’s work. I became a proud member of the library this year after Ken came and spoke at the Permaculture Design Course I was attending. This is such an important topic and I feel blessed that The Hudson Valley Seed Library is my local source for seeds. So inspirational!

  3. WNC Observer says:

    A model that I am trying to get started is to form a seed buying co-op amongst area gardeners, and then to try to find people willing to save seeds in quantity of certain varieties and to contract with us to supply them for our annual order. This, it seems to me, is the best way to build up a localized supply base.

  4. Brooke says:

    Love this post! I ordered my seeds from Baker Seed Co. in Missouri (www.rareseeds.com) because they are in my region and also work to preserve heirloom vegetables and their seeds. No GMO’s! I am hoping to gain some seed-saving skills this year, but I am a novice gardener and maybe I will be so overwhelmed by the harvest that seed-saving will have to wait until next year ;-) If there are any other seed-saving-newbies out there, I found this website with good info for beginners: http://www.seedsave.org/issi/904/beginner.html
    Thanks for a great post on such an important topic!

  5. knutty knitter says:

    So far I’ve only saved sweet peas but next year I’ll have a go at the beans too.

    viv in nz

  6. Mark N says:

    “Save it long enough, and your strain of tomato or bean will become something genetically distinct from the one you obtained, as the plants genes work to adapt to the conditions it finds. ”

    Sharon, I’m sure you know the plant’s genes are not actively working to adapt. Random mutations and careful selection by the gardener/grower of the plants that are successful and show the desired traits are what create a better adapted cultivar.

  7. Sharon says:

    Hi Mark - Of course you are right - poor sentence construction on my part. Thanks for the correction!


  8. Jen H. in western MA says:

    This exact topic has been on my mind for a while now. I need to find out if anyone is doing this already in western Mass. or if I should just go ahead and start something.

  9. Greenpa says:

    Sharon- “as the plants genes work” - as a geneticist, I didn’t even notice that; in fact you’re using geneticist insider “short-hand”.

    Mark is right; but geneticists often talk this way to each other, when no one else is listening (though some are fussy, and won’t allow short-speak.)

    Local adaptation of genotypes is extremely important- and industrial agriculture knows it. Something very few outside the industry know, is that the superadvanced commercial hybrid corn your neighbor grows- will not be found growing 50 miles away, in any direction. They will be growing different, specific hybrids. Variations in soils and microclimates make differences in yields high enough that it PAYS both seed companies and farmers to be that specific. It’s a huge amount of work.

    The same is true for garden vegetables.

    One point I didn’t notice in your post; when the climate shifts, it’s quite likely that YOUR local seed library may wind up badly adapted to your own region- but well adapted to someplace north of you (usually).

    That could be important- we could arrange to swap libraries (testing first) and save a huge amount of work; and maybe prevent some hunger.

  10. Rosa says:

    I joined the Seed Savers Exchange this year. I always order seeds from them, and they give a discount if you join. Their book is HUGE - there may already be seed savers near you, that you could trade with.

    I am saving basil seeds again this year, because they’re super easy - then next year I’ll have something to trade.

  11. AnneT says:

    We have a seed savers exchange in our area. They had a “Seedy Saturday” this year in a church hall where folks could exchange seeds, donate 25 cents for each packet of saved seed they took, or buy from local seed producers.

    I hoping to save some seed this year so I can exchange rather than buy next spring!

    We also have an Ecology Garden that starts a lot of heirloom plants from scratch (as well as local trees) and sells them from the garden as well as in a big sale on the third Sunday in May.

    I feel lucky to have so many sources of non-GMO seeds here in Peterborough, Ontario!

  12. Green Assassin Brigade says:

    I have family in Lindsay so Peterborough would not be much of a detour for me to take next year, do you have links or contacts for local seed savers.

  13. Ann says:

    Check out the web site for Fedco Seed Coop in Waterville, Maine. They have been doing this for around 30 years with seeds, fruit trees, and tubers. They have a huge network now of growers of local seeds, etc. Their operation is better organized than any commercial seed operation I know.

  14. Uncle Yarra says:

    Keep seeds from the year before too, if possible; as one type might grow well in a good year but the previous season’s seeds might adapt better to drier/wetter/infestation conditions.

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